If you want to write vigorously, respond clearly and powerfully to your readers’ needs, and make every word tell, you must be mindful of how you write.
In his classic book "The Elements of Style," William Strunk Jr. says:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
It also doesn’t matter what your cultural or educational background is, whether you are writing a short story, blog post, business letter, or even just an email, there is always room to improve your writing. And some improvements can be made immediately.
Do these ten little things and you will immediately improve your writing:
1. Open immediately with your main idea.
As a general rule, state your main idea – or at least give a strong hint of your main message – in the first few opening sentences. Don’t keep the reader waiting and guessing for too long about what you are writing about. People are impatient and won’t stick around to read through your rumblings.
Similarly, avoid opening your writing with strings of generic sentences. Instead of saying Chicago is a ‘big city,’ open with something unique about Chicago that cannot be said of just about any other city. For example, you could say Chicago is a ‘windy city.’ You can’t say that of any city in the US.
2. Avoid bloated messages.
Cut to the chase. No matter how complex or technical your subject is, write your message in the most direct, easy-to-understand and concise way possible. Don’t assault your readers’ intelligence and patience with bloated ideas, pretentious vocabularies and jargon.
Facilitate reader enjoyment and comprehension by employing familiar, everyday words. For example, instead of writing 'eliminate,’ write ‘end.’
The word ‘end’ is shorter, punchier and more familiar with people around the world. It reduces chances of confusion and misinterpretation of the intended meaning.
3. Vary your sentence length and structure.
Use short sentences to emphasize an idea and create a punch. Use longer sentences to define, illustrate or explain ideas.
Blend simple, compound, complex sentences, as well as occasional commands and questions to spice up your writing. Writing is more than just meaning—it's also about sounds and can be visual as well.
Varying your sentence length, types, and structures helps to avoid monotony and allows for emphasis where needed. But clichés and frankenswords—the bane of the modern writer—should be avoided.
4. Ditch frankenwords.
A Frankenword is a word formed by combining two or more words weirdly bolted together to create stiff, bizarre versions of themselves, typically ending in -ize or -ism or -istic (incentivize, bucketize).
While Frankenwordization would ordinarily be dubbed horrific, it's now becoming commonplace in writing. What is “acceptable” has become a matter of taste or age.
As you can image, fankenwords can easily be misunderstood and hinder reader comprehension because of their weird coinages. Just avoid them.
Also avoid nouns masquerading as verbs such as 'journaling' or 'workshopping,' and verbs masquerading as nouns such as 'learnings.'
5. Use concrete words.
Concrete words are terms for things that can be experienced by any of the five senses; this means words for things that can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched, such as table, hot, and dancing. Use concrete words in your writing and avoid abstract terms as much as possible.
Abstract words and phrases point to rhetoric and are not available to the senses, such as ‘great’ and ‘wonderful.” These abstract terms often represent your own personal opinion. Just because you say something is “great” doesn’t mean everyone else thinks the same way.
So, stick to concrete words. If you must use abstract terms, qualify them with proof from reliable sources.
6. Consider the reader’s agenda.
Don’t start to write until you know who exactly you are writing for. Who is your target audience? What problem or need do they have? What gender are they? Where in the world are they located? What is in it for them? Will this solve their problem?
It is never enough to only factor in your own agenda when writing. Always weave into your work the audience’s agenda and pack as much value in there as possible. If you can do this, the battle is half won. You'll be a conscientious writer, which is what the world really needs.
7. Separate the writing and editing processes.
Separating the writing and editing to processes ensures you allocate adequate time, space, and attention necessary to complete both successfully.
Focus on writing your message down uninhibited at first draft. Maul over surface level issues of grammar, style, and typos later during the editing stage.
Keep in mind there is no shame in write a crummy first draft, just as long as you afford plenty of time to edit later. As Cecil Castellucci says, "The best flowers are fertilized by crap."
8. Trim everything down.
When editing or revising your work, eliminate unnecessary words and phrases in text to ensure words get straight to the point, rather than beating about the bush or being boastful, pushy, or fluffy. Nothing shouts “armature” than using extraneous and wordy terms and phrases in your writing.
Instead of writing ‘owing to the fact that’ or ‘due to the fact that,’ just say ‘since’ or ‘because.’ Similarly, instead of saying, ‘bring the matter to a conclusion,’ just say ‘conclude.’ Trimming everything down makes your writing easy to read and understand. It improves readability.
9. Pay attention to formatting.
Consider your publication’s editorial guidelines and the format and packaging requirements for your type of writing, and use that to your advantage.
For example, when writing blog posts you can help your readers measure progress with numbered subheads. However, when writing essays and dissertations, you may have to refer to different formatting guidelines given by your editor or instructor.
Some editors can get very annoyed if you don't heed their instractions and meet their specifications, which means your writing could go without appropriate reward as a result. When writing content for the web, though, subheads and short paragraphs are your friend.
10. Proofread everything out loud.
Once you finish writing your piece, read it out loud. This will help you catch errors and fix mistakes you might have missed. You will be amazed at the revelations you get when you speak your words out loud. Your ear can catch flaws your eye can't.
Listen for flow, transitions, choppiness, and confusing sentence structure. If the piece seems to lack the proper pauses when spoken, it probably needs better punctuation.
By proofreading your work out loud, you also learn how to pay attention to detail and that can immediately improve your writing.